Maybe it’s a 1971 thing but here I am tonight hunkered down with Fleetwood Mac Greatest Hits, which is basically all the Mac I feel I ever need*. You see I have no yearning for the soap opera Mac (I’m happy to hear their 3 or 4 good ones on the radio every so often), Peter Green was the man for me and this Greatest Hits, only four years into their career, does all I want it to; despite the glaring omission of 1537 fave ‘Somebody’s Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight’.
There’s always a prospective danger of perspective when you’re dealing with those artists who never returned from their tour of duty, a temptation to bandy the word ‘genius’ around a bit too much for my liking; yeah I find Jim Morrison entertaining, but genius? do me a favour! Okay so Peter Green is still with us in the flesh but that talent and spirit was doused a long time ago, whether via the famous Munich overdose in March ’70, or just the early onset of the schizophrenia that he was later diagnosed with, is a matter of some debate^. That the candle of his talent was largely snuffed is beyond doubt though. When I watch him talk or perform back then, his gentility, touch and talent just shine through. Unlike the other 60’s rock guitar heroes he barely seems to force anything, the music just appears to flow through him. I also like peter Green a lot because, in his prime, he looked a lot like my late uncle Chris; that might just be a ‘me’ thing though, readers.
I’ve played this disc a lot in the last 19 years and it gets better every time I dig it out**. When I do spin it, I always end up impressed anew with one track, or other. Tonight it is very much ‘Rattle Snake Shake’, where the band invent ZZ Top in 1969. No seriously, just listen to that vocal, that guitar bite over a laid back tune – it’s all there in that one song, which makes it even more wonderful than it would otherwise be. The fact that I have a real thing for songs that speed up towards their end? great. The fact that they recorded a real rattlesnake for the shaker-y bits? even better. The fact that it’s about having a, umm, quick one off the wrist to keep the blues at bay? genius*^.
Fleetwood Mac rocked the blues brilliantly, you only need to check out their cover of ‘Shake Your Money Maker’, all exuberance and drive, or the faux BB King of ‘Stop Messin’ Round’, or even the stately pomp of ‘Need Your Love So Bad’, which Green sings beautifully. However, it’s when Green added even more of his own strangeness and imagination to the brew that everything really takes off, ‘Oh Well – Part 1’ is a track of sheer, staggering genius, that perfect stop/start riff hammers in and then,
I can’t help about the shape I’m in
I can’t sing, I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin
But don’t ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to
Okay so it’s blues-based, but it really doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard from 1969. It’s a beautifully taut track, just the right amounts of tension and release, self-deprecation and boasting. Perfect, absolutely perfect and it isn’t even the best track Fleetwood Mac ever made called ‘Oh Well’! ‘Oh Well – Part 2’, which Peter Green wanted to make the A-side of the single before a record company dude, rightly, intervened is even better. A five and a half-minute gentle instrumental, featuring some lovely Spanish guitaring, it’s a therapeutic thing for me, a warm bath of sound^^. Sadly I’ve just heard ‘Albatross’ too many times to actually hear it any more, but it is beautifully, gently played regardless.
Just when you think it has hit the summit Greatest Hits manages to serve us up two even better tracks. ‘The Green Manalishi (With The Two-Pronged Crown)’, chronicles Peter Green’s descent into nightmare, money being the devil (‘I can’t believe you need my love so bad’) and it really is one of the strangest songs of the era, there’s no whimsy here this is a menacing, unearthly, slow, melancholy trip – true to form, I thought this was a Judas Priest original for years. Again, even amongst all the great playing here it’s very much Green’s voice that stays with me – there’s a slight resignation and disconnect there that works perfectly, or am I just hearing what I want to hear? Whether it is the literal transcript of a nightmare about a dead dog and a devil, as Green claimed, or not as you listen to the last spooky wails of this spectral lament, what does it matter?
Now, when the day goes to sleep
And the full moon looks
The night is so black that the darkness cooks
Don’t you come creepin’ around
Makin’ me do things I don’t wanna do
Can’t believe that you need my love so bad^^^
Surely Greatest Hits can’t get any better? well, for me at least, it does, ‘Man of The World’. I know, I know, I’m a bit of a soppy bugger but this moves me to tears. Again, it’s all about fragility and yearning for me^*, the music is sparse, there isn’t a spare note and what there is, is played with consummate touch and grace. But it is the lyrics and that voice that boost it into the stratosphere for me, I really have never heard a ballad that sounds so personal and true; no clichés, no bombast, no melodrama or bruised swagger, just a sad truth. ‘Man of The World’ could make a stone weep, let alone an emotionally squishy sort from Wales, like me.
I don’t mean to paint Fleetwood Mac, in this early incarnation, as a one man band. The playing throughout is spot on and unfussy, just enough, and the right, notes played. Indeed, the main photo of the band in the gatefold is of the post-Peter Green band. A further pointer of the direction to come is the inclusion of the gorgeous, sensitive ‘Dragonfly’, the setting of W.H Davies’ poem to music by Danny Kirwan – another fragile soul, who was soon to leave Mac, shows as it was no doubt intended that the band would endure. The sleeve notes amuse me,
‘since the album (Kiln House) there has been one single with mediocre success – a Danny Kirwan song ‘Dragonfly’
Gee, thanks CBS! Record companies these days have whole departments that are there expressly for the purpose of concealing truths like these and bigging up their acts. But let’s not waste time worrying about Fleetwood Mac, they went on to do quite well, so I’m told, let’s just spin this excellent and surprisingly touching Greatest Hits again before the full moon looks.
*although, several enthusiasts I’ve met at work and the learned likes of Mr V. Connection would argue otherwise and rightly so, but I’m a cussed sort.
**from between the Flamin’ Groovies and Fluke, since you ask.
*^obviously as a post-evolutionary humanoid myself, a being made of pure light, I have no idea whether this would work or not. True story.
^it amuses me that the main evidence that’s always cited in the fact that he lost his mind, is the fact that he threw away all his money and was very serious about renouncing worldly wealth – the man was clearly ill. Bread heads, the lot of you!
^^and ZZ Top definitely didn’t rip it off wholesale and call it ‘Asleep In The Desert’ on Tejas. Nope, not at all – what a thing to suggest!
^^^produced by Martin Birch, of later Maiden/Purple/Sabbath fame, of course.
^*I’ve always been big on yearning.